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David Lodge is the author of ten novels, including Small World and Nice Work, both of which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He is also the author of several works of literary criticism, including The Art of Fiction and The Practice of Writing.
THE COTTAGE stands all on its own at the end of a rutted cart-track that leads off from the main road to the village, about a mile away. It is easy to drive past this gap in the hedgerows without seeing the small hand-painted wooden sign, faded and weathered, which is nailed to a post, bearing the name `Ludlow'; and without realising therefore that it leads to a human habitation. A slight hump in the terrain and a stand of beech trees screen the cottage and its outbuildings from the road.
This is not one of the more picturesque parts of Sussex, but a little pocket of slightly scruffy agricultural land situated between the main roads from London to Brighton and Worthing. Gatwick airport is nearer than the South Downs. The cottage itself is quite old, but not architecturally distinguished. It looks as if it originally consisted of two small semi-detached cottages, probably occupied by farm-workers, which have been converted into a single dwelling in modern times with many improvements and modifications. The front door is actually on one side of the house, where a gravel drive has been laid out for car parking, and the long frontage has windows where there were once doors, overlooking a pleasant, unpretentious garden of lawn and shrubs and flower-beds. At the back a one-storey extension has been added, accommodating a modern kitchen and a white-tiled shower suite. There are other outbuildings, including a kind of lean-to providing shelter for a small kiln, and what looks at first sight like a garden shed, except that it is constructed of rather superior wood and has only one small square window, set intothe door and glazed with dark, opaque glass.
`Did you know', said Adrian, reading from the carton, `that cornflakes are eighty-four per cent carbohydrates, of which eight per cent are sugars?'
Eleanor, absorbed in her newspaper, did not answer. Adrian picked up another packet and scrutinised it.
`All-Bran is only forty-six per cent carbohydrates, but eighteen per cent of them are sugars,' he said. `Is eighteen per cent of forty-six better or worse than eight per cent of eighty-four?'
Eleanor still did not answer. Adrian did not seem surprised or offended. He picked up another packet. `Shredded Wheat seems to be the best bet. Sixty-seven per cent carbohydrates, of which less than one per cent are sugars. And no salt. I suppose that's why it doesn't taste of anything much.' He put a portion of Shredded Wheat into his bowl, and poured on semi-skimmed milk.
It was nine o'clock on a Sunday morning in the summer of 1997. Adrian and Eleanor Ludlow were in the living room of their cottage, in dressing gowns. It was a large, low-ceilinged, comfortable room, with a dining table at one end and a sitting area at the other, where there was an open fireplace. The walls were lined with densely packed bookshelves, which seemed to lean inwards in places — an effect of the irregularity of the walls, which made the house seem like a rather civilised cave dwelling. Spaces had been left in the shelving for the display of several ceramic vases, jugs and bowls with a family resemblance in their design; and there were more such objects on occasional tables in the room. The bookshelves also incorporated an expensive hi-fi system, which was silent at this hour, like the television set pushed into a corner of the sitting area. Adrian was at the dining table. Eleanor had finished her breakfast and was sitting on the sofa reading the Sunday papers. She did this systematically. On one side of her was a neat stack of pristine, folded, multi-sectioned broadsheets; on the other a less tidy pile of the sections she had finished with. She wore a pair of cotton gloves to stop the ink of the newsprint from soiling her hands and getting on her clothes.
`A new British film is causing a stir in America,' she said. She was reading the Culture section of the Sunday Gazette. `It's about male strippers in Sheffield.'
`I suppose that might have some perverse exotic attraction for Americans,' said Adrian. `I can't see it catching on here. What else is new in the world of artistic endeavour?'
Eleanor scanned the pages of the newspaper. `Damien Hirst is exhibiting a decapitated art critic in a tank of formaldehyde,' she said, then quickly corrected herself: `Oh no, that's a joke.'
`It's so hard to tell the difference these days,' said Adrian.
`And there's a row brewing over the Royal Opera House.'
`It all sounds reassuringly familiar,' said Adrian.
A jet passed overhead. The cottage was about twelve miles from Gatwick airport and under its main flight path. The noise sometimes disturbed visitors, but Adrian and Eleanor scarcely noticed it any longer.
`What's the front-page news?' Adrian asked.
Eleanor put down the Gazette and picked up the news section of the Sunday Sentinel.
`Boring,' she said. `Mostly about Diana's holiday with Dodi Fayed.'
`But it was last Sunday, too!' said Adrian.
`It's the ultimate silly season story,' said Eleanor. `One of the tabloids has paid a quarter of a million for pictures of them kissing on his yacht.'
`You could get quite a good Picasso for that,' said Adrian. `A small one, anyway.'
Eleanor's eyes widened as she glanced at the foot of the page. `Good God!' she exclaimed.
`What's the matter?'
`I don't believe it.' She dropped the news section and began to search through the pile of unread sections of the Sentinel.
`What has happened to cause this amazement he asked himself,' said Adrian, who had once been a novelist by occupation. `Has Jeffrey Archer renounced his peerage? Has Richard Branson travelled on one of his own trains? Has—'
`It says there's an interview with Sam in the Sentinel Review,' said Eleanor. `By Fanny Tarrant.'
`Oh, yes,' said Adrian.
Eleanor looked up in surprise. `You knew about it?'
`Well, sort of. The Tarrant woman called me up about it.'
`You didn't tell me.'
`I forgot,' said Adrian. `You were out, I think.'
`What did she want?'
`Background about Sam,' said Adrian.
`I hope you didn't give her any.'
`I told her I wouldn't discuss my oldest friend behind his back.'
`I should think not,' said Eleanor. She found the Sentinel Review and pulled it from the pile. `Especially with Fanny Tarrant. She eats men like Sam for breakfast.'
Adrian looked at a spoonful of Shredded Wheat halfway to his mouth. `Well, there's not a lot of sugar in Sam,' he said.
`Sir Robert Digby-Sisson wept when he read what Fanny Tarrant wrote about him,' said Eleanor, turning the pages of the Review.
`How do you know?' said Adrian.
`It said so in another paper. Here it is. God, what a ridiculous photograph. I fear the worst. Look! Eleanor held open me paper for Adrian to see me large colour photograph of Sam Sharp. `He's wearing riding boots. He doesn't ride. He doesn't even own a horse.'
`They're not riding boots, they're cowboy boots,' said Adrian. `He wears them on his trail bike.'
`Trail bike! When is he going to grow up? Anyway, he isn't on a motorbike in the picture, he's sitting in front of his computer, and a right wally he looks too, in cowboy boots ... Oh dear. Oh dear. Listen to this.' Eleanor began to read the article aloud. `"Samuel Sharp has done pretty well for the son of a tobacconist in darkest Deptford. He owns a modernised seventeenth-century moated farmhouse in Sussex with its own tennis court, and a hundred and fifty acres of arable land which he leases to neighbouring farmers because he's too busy writing lucrative TV screenplays to farm them himself. You can tell that he fancies himself in the agrarian role, though, by the way he swaggers around his estate with his Ralph Lauren jeans tucked into high-heeled cowboy boots. He can use the heels, actually, being a little short in the shank. Stature is a sensitive point with him. `Whatever you do, don't ask Sam about his height,' said a friend. `Or his toupée.' I didn't know till then that he wore a toupée." Some friend!' said Eleanor. And then: `Was that you?'
`Certainly not,' said Adrian. `Where's the low-sugar marmalade?'
`We've run out.' Adrian tutted. Eleanor continued reading aloud from the newspaper. `"Naturally these no-go areas only excited my curiosity. I spent much of our time together on tiptoe, trying to inspect the top of Samuel Sharp's head for tell-tale signs of his rug. When he saw what I was doing he would rise up on his toes to frustrate me, so we must have looked like a couple of ballet dancers doing warm-up exercises. Except that there was nobody there to see us. Mrs Sharp left the ranch three months ago. Rumour has it that she has moved in with the director of her husband's last TV series, the BAFTA-winning The Bottom Line. Samuel Sharp was rather tight-lipped about this when I raised the subject. `Laura and I separated by mutual agreement,' he said. Laura, incidentally, was wife number two, number one having departed some years ago, taking their two children with her ..." What business is that of hers? Or anybody else's?' Eleanor commented, and went on reading aloud.
`"The first thing you notice about Samuel Sharp's study is that it's plastered with trophies, certificates and citations for prizes and awards, and framed press photographs of Samuel Sharp, like the interior of an Italian restaurant. The second thing you notice is the full-length mirror on one wall. `It's to give the room a feeling of space,' the writer explained, but you can't help thinking there's another reason. His eyes keep sliding sideways, drawn irresistibly by this mirror even while he's speaking to you. I went to see Samuel Sharp wondering why he had been so unlucky in matrimony. I left thinking I knew the answer: the man's insufferable vanity."'
Eleanor looked at Adrian for a reaction. He was spreading marmalade thinly on a piece of cold toast.
`A bit harsh,' said Adrian.
`Harsh! It's vicious,' said Eleanor. She continued reading silently to herself for a few moments, with little sighs of dismay and stifled sniggers, then broke into speech again. `Oh God, listen to this. "The heroine of Samuel Sharp's latest TV film, Darkness, is described in the BBC's publicity handout as a `nymphomaniac'. I asked him if he had ever met a nymphomaniac. `Yes, no, well, it depends on what you mean by a nymphomaniac,' he stammered. `I've known women who made it pretty obvious that they'd, you know, if I gave them the slightest encouragement, but it's difficult to say whether it was nymphomania, `exactly ...' I think he was delicately hinting that it's difficult for a handsome chap tike him to know whether the readiness of casual female acquaintances to roll over on to their backs and open their knees is the effect of their temperament or his irresistible sex appeal."' Eleanor laid down the newspaper. `Sam's going to be devastated when he sees this,' she said.
`Well, he did ask for it, one might say,' said Adrian.
`You're not very sympathetic to your best friend,' said Eleanor.
`I said "oldest friend".'
`Who's your best friend, then?'
Adrian thought for a moment. `You are.'
Eleanor was unmoved by this declaration. `Apart from me.'
`I don't think I've got one,' he said. `Sadly, it's not a concept that belongs to middle age.'
Adrian had celebrated his fiftieth birthday earlier in the year. Eleanor was a couple of years younger. Some thirty years ago they had been students together with Sam Sharp at a provincial university. They had both aged gracefully. Adrian was tall and slim, slightly stooped, with a mane of silver-grey hair worn long over his ears and neck. Eleanor was still a good-looking woman, pleasant to behold even at this hour of the morning, before she had washed and attended to her appearance. A cloudy mass of fine wavy hair, discreetly coloured, framed a round, well-fleshed face with big brown eyes and a generous mouth and chin. She had kept her teeth and her figure.
At that moment they heard the sound of a car turning into the gravel drive outside the cottage.
`Who can that be?, said Eleanor.
Adrian went to the window and looked out, squinting sideways at the parking space. `It's Sam,' he said.
`Hah, hah,' said Eleanor calmly. She resumed reading Fanny Tarrant's interview.
`Is he not the owner of a green Range Rover, registration number SAM 1?' Adrian enquired.
Eleanor jumped to her feet, and went to the window to look out. `My God, it is Sam,' she said. She hurried towards the door, stopped, turned back and thrust the Sentinel Review into Adrian's hands. `Here, hide this,' she said.
`Why?' said Adrian. The doorbell chimed.
`He may not have seen it: yet.'
The doorbell chimed again and Eleanor hastened out to the hall, stripping off her cotton gloves and stuffing them into the pockets of her dressing gown. Adrian heard her unbolting the front door, then opening it, crying with an effect of surprise, `Sam! What are you doing here at this time of the morning? Come in.' Adrian slid the Sentinel Review under a cushion on the sofa. Then, as an afterthought, he thrust all the other newspapers under the sofa, out of sight, just as Eleanor returned with Sam. `Adrian, look who it is,' she said.
`'Allo, mate,' said Sam. The more successful he had become, the more he favoured the accent of his Cockney roots. But his greeting lacked real warmth and his smile was restrained, like those exchanged between friends at funerals. He was holding a furled newspaper in one hand, and tapped it against his upper thigh. He was dressed in clean, well-pressed jeans, an unstructured suede jacket and a cotton polo shirt, each of which bore the name of a different well-known designer. Sam was not as short as Fanny Tarrant had implied, but slightly less than average in height. His complexion was tanned and wrinkled with laugh-lines around the eyes, his features slightly monkey-like, with a snub nose and a deep upper lip.
`Sam!' said Adrian, weakly imitating Eleanor's tone of surprise. `What brings you here so early on a Sunday morning?' He advanced with hand outstretched. To shake it, Sam had to transfer the newspaper from his right hand to his left. It was a copy of the Sentinel Review.
`I'm flying to LA this morning, from Gatwick,' Sam said. `Thought I'd drop in on my way.'
`What a lovely surprise,' said Eleanor. `We haven't seen you for ages. Have you had breakfast?'
`As much as I could stomach,' said Sam.
`Would you like some coffee?'
`Thanks, that would be nice.'
`I'll make some fresh.' Eleanor picked up the coffee pot.
`No, don't bother,' said Sam. `That will do fine. I like lukewarm coffee.' He held up the Sentinel Review. `Have you seen this?'
`What is it?' said Eleanor.
`Today's Sentinel. Did you read what that bitch Fanny Tarrant has written about me?' He sat down on the sofa, sensed the presence of the newspaper underneath the cushion, and pulled it out. `I see you have,' he said.
`I just glanced at it,' said Eleanor.
`Did you?' Sam asked Adrian.
`Ellie read out some bits to me,' he said. Sam looked reproachfully at Eleanor.
She handed him a cup of coffee. `Only the beginning.'
`Well, it doesn't get any better,' said Sam.
`How do you feel about it?' said Adrian.
`I feel as if I've been shat on from a great height by a bilious bird of prey,' said Sam.
Adrian smiled. `That's rather good. Did you just think of it?'
`It's a quotation,' said Sam.
`Is it?' said Adrian. `From what?'
`From my last series but one.'
`Sam,' said Eleanor, `what possessed you, to let that woman interview you? You must have read her stuff.'
`I suppose so ... I can't remember,' said Sam. `There are so many of them, with their columns and their interviews ...'
`But she's famous,' said Eleanor.
`No, I'm famous,' said Sam, placing his index finger on his chest. `She hasn't been around long enough to be famous.'
`Notorious, then. For being rude about people.'
`Well, she rang me up one day, drooling over The Bottom Line. She really seemed to love it.'
`And you fell for that old ploy?' said Eleanor.
`I know, I know ... But I just didn't think that someone who could say such intelligent things about my work would write anything so ...' Sam shook his head in disbelief at the perfidy of Fanny Tarrant. `I gave her lunch, too. Prepared it myself: home-made watercress soup, cold poached salmon with mayonnaise -- real mayonnaise, not that stuff like Brylcreem out of a jar. And a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisé that cost a hundred and fifty quid a case.'
`Poor Sam,' said Eleanor.
`It does seem ungrateful,' said Adrian. `After the mayonnaise and everything.'
`I suppose you think it's funny?' said Sam.
`No, no,' said Adrian. Sam stared at him suspiciously. `No,' Adrian repeated, shaking his head vigorously. But his lips twitched.
`I'm going to throw some clothes on,' said Eleanor. `You can stay a little while, Sam?'
`Half an hour or so.'
`Oh good. I won't be a minute. We haven't seen you for ages.'
`No, I've been insanely busy lately. I haven't seen anyone,' said Sam.
`Except Fanny Tarrant,' said Adrian, as Eleanor left the room.
`That was work,' said Sam. `Just because you've backed out of the limelight, Adrian, you needn't feel superior to those of us who still have to hang in there.'
`Hang in there ...? I'm afraid your speech is being corrupted by all these meetings in Hollywood, Sam.'
`I've got a particularly important one on Tuesday. I hope to God they don't take the Sunday Schadenfreude at the studio.'
`You can be sure someone will send it to them.'
`Thanks for cheering me up.'
`It's the world we live in, Sam. Or, rather, the world you live in.'
`What world is that?'
`A world dominated by the media. The culture of gossip.'
`The culture of envy, you mean,' said Sam. `There are people in this country who simply hate success. If you work hard, make a name, make some money, they'll do everything in their power to do you down.'
`But you put yourself in their power by agreeing to be interviewed by the likes of Fanny Tarrant,' Adrian said.
`It's easy to say that when you've never been asked.'
`I have been asked,' said Adrian.
Sam looked at him in surprise. `What, by, Fanny Tarrant? When?'
`A few weeks ago.'
`And what did you say?'
`I said "No, thanks."'